Peril to King legacy seen 'Be an activist," civil rights leader says

January 30, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Martin Luther King Jr. Day threatens to become just another day off and King's legacy little more than a sound bite from his "I Have a Dream" speech if Americans don't carry on his struggle, a national civil rights leader said yesterday.

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who with King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, expressed that fear and issued a challenge to keep King's struggle alive in speaking at a belated observance of the King holiday at Fort Meade.

"If you really want to celebrate Martin Luther King, you have to be an activist," Lowery, 76, chairman of the Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of national civil rights organizations, told about 60 people in the post chapel.

The federal holiday was Jan. 19, but Fort Meade organizers had to plan around Lowery's schedule.

Mixing traditional preaching cadence with more conversational talk and relating biscuits to racial diversity, Lowery had his audience of Fort Meade employees applauding, laughing and, finally, standing for an ovation.

More than celebrating a remarkable individual, Lowery said, the King holiday symbolizes the nation's commitment to justice and human dignity. He said he would give Americans the same advice he gives newlyweds.

"We ought to challenge the nation in 1998 to take time out to look into your heart and see how you are living up to your vow," he said. "Until death do us part, that's how long this nation has vowed to be fair and equitable."

Commemorations of King's life should also be a time to re-embrace the struggle for liberty that King championed, said Lowery. King was shot to death in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

The ubiquitous clips of King during the March on Washington in 1963 make it easy to forget that he was a nonviolent revolutionary who spent time in jail for his beliefs and took his struggle to the streets, Lowery said.

With parents in California protesting naming a school after King, assaults on affirmative action programs and a tape recording of Texaco executives making disparaging remarks about black employees, it is clear that racism in America is not dead, he said.

In November, under Lowery, the Black Leadership Forum raised most of the money to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by a white schoolteacher and thereby prevent a ruling by the Supreme Court that could have stymied affirmative action programs.

Lowery warned about portraying the King commemoration as a black holiday. He said King embraced racial diversity and that diversity and unity are the keys to America's future.

The Alabama native used his mother's method of cooking biscuits in a wood stove to illustrate a point about diversity and unity.

The biscuits baked closest to the flame came out browner than the rest, but all were baked through and sweet, he said. In Lowery's analogy, God was the master baker.

"Some of us, he took out of the oven real quick," Lowery said. "They didn't get brown, but they got done."

After 20 years at the helm of the SCLC, Lowery handed over the presidency of the Atlanta-based organization to King's son, Martin Luther King III, this year on the slain leader's birthday, Jan. 15.

Lowery's afternoon audience in the post chapel was much smaller than the 400 or so people who filled a National Security Agency auditorium in the morning to hear him. More people watched his appearance there on closed circuit television.

Lt. Col. Gary Perolman, Fort Meade's staff judge advocate, said he wished more people could have heard Lowery.

"While I was listening to Dr. Lowery it made me feel like I was 30 years younger," said Perolman, who at 17 heard King speak at a school on Long Island. "He kind of brought me back to a feeling of truly being inspired All the things that are on tape that we can watch, [but] this guy is living history. I still am shivering."

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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